Liberian man charged with lying to immigration authorities about alleged ties to war crimes

The defense says he never intended to mislead.

Steve Tawa
June 12, 2018 - 4:51 pm
Thomas Woewiyu

Steve Tawa | KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A second Liberian national's immigration and fraud trial is underway at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. It centers on atrocities committed during civil conflict, but he's charged with lying about his role in it while seeking U.S. citizenship. 

When former Liberian President Charles Taylor rose to power in the West African country's brutal civil war in the 1990s, federal prosecutors said 71-year-old Thomas Woewiyu from Collingdale played a "prominent role."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Thayer said Woewiyu was especially effective at recruiting child soldiers, some as young as 10. During opening statements, Thayer said he used them "as weapons of war and terror," even though at times "their AK-47s were taller than they were, dragging on the ground behind them."

He also said those child soldiers manned checkpoints. Rather than have wooden gates installed that went up and down, "human intestines were strung across the road, and human heads were on stakes."

Prosecutors contend during Woewiyu's tenure as a spokesman and a minister of defense for the National Patriotic Front of Liberia that the action staged a "particularly heinous and brutal campaign" for control, fighting against other rebel factions and the government. 

The indictment alleged it was characterized by the "torture of perceived adversaries, the execution of civilians, killing peacekeepers, and the forced sexual slavery and rape of girls and women." 

Prosecutors also contend Woewiyu lied about his role in those atrocities when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 2006. They say he checked "No" on several background questions, including whether he had any political affiliations or had ever advocated the overthrow of any government by force or violence.

The government is expected to call victims, former diplomats and war correspondents in what could be a three-week trial for the case.

Federal public defender Catherine Henry claimed the government was using the Liberian Civil War to "emotionally manipulate and distract jurors" from the essence of the case. She said they're not there to "pass judgment on the conflict." Henry told jurors since the government "doesn't have the authority or jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes," it "wants to hold someone accountable."

She said Woewiyu "never intended to mislead or lie" on the citizenship form, and he filled it out "to the best of his knowledge and belief." At worst, she said, his answers were "incomplete or imprecise, but not a crime."

At the Philadelphia federal courthouse in April, another Liberian national, Mohammed Jabbateh — who was said to be a ruthless Liberian warlord known as "Jungle Jabbah" — was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Although sentencing guidelines called for less than two years in prison on the immigration fraud and perjury charges, Jabbateh received three decades.

He was not convicted of war crimes, but rather for hiding his past and defrauding the U.S. immigration system.